Top critical review
5 Star Potential, 2 Star Performance
Reviewed in the United States on February 5, 2020
I bought this book with high expectations, instead, I came away disappointed. Which is a shame because I think this work of art can be so much more. A book is a message-delivery device. So my review will focus on both the message of the author and the medium he used. I will also offer thoughts on how future editions of the book can inch closer to a 5-star rating.
MESSAGE REVIEW (4 stars)
One-paragraph Summary of the book:
The central thesis of the book is that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA-64) was a much bigger deal than its supporters realized. Had they known what they were backing, they probably would have re-considered it. The CRA-64, according to the author, is a rival constitution to the original constitution and so the United States of America can no longer be united since it is now being ruled by two opposing constitutions. One is the de jure, which favors conservatives, Republicans, in short, straight white men. The de jure is fading out in the face of the de facto constitution which favors anyone that is not white, male and straight.
What I like about the message:
1. The author repeated his key point many times. In page 120, we read: “Almost everyone other than white heterosexual males could benefit in some way from civil right laws. Vast, hitherto unenvisioned coalitions, perhaps even electoral majorities, could be formed by rallying other non-white groups.” He made variants of this statement so often that it’s hard for you to miss what he was trying to pass across.
2. The author showed how the CRA-64 has worked against America. He, for instance, drew a straight line from the CRA-64 (and the twin offspring of Affirmative Action and Political Correctness it birthed) to the financial crisis of 2008. He also showed how recoveries from recession are now taking longer, thanks to the unintended(?) consequences of the CRA-64. If the author is to be believed, America’s debt will only soar because it has to pacify not one, but two constitutions. The alternative is anarchy.
3. The author’s original views. Maybe I am not well read, but he is the first I have seen praise Nixon and vilify Reagan in the same sentence. I had to read sections of the book discussing Nixon over and again to be sure. According to the author, Reagan wasted an opportunity to right the disruptive course of the CRA-64. “The Reagan era had in retrospect marked a consolidation, not a reversal, of the movements that began in the 1960s. In the quarter-century after Reagan, conservatives lost every battle against the substance of political correctness.” (p. 163) To be fair, the author sounded unimpressed with all the Republican administration since Nixon: Reagan, Bush and his "even more reckless" son were all painted with a broad brush. No mention of Donald Trump (more on this later)
4. I share his disdain for the excesses of Affirmative Action and Political Correctness. In page 154, for instance, we read: “Discouraging or disciplining racist attitudes was no longer enough – it had become necessary to destroy the life and livelihood of anyone even suspected of harboring them.” And “Only with the entrenchment of political correctness did it become clear what Americans had done in 1964: They had inadvertently voted themselves a second constitution without explicitly repealing the one they had. Each constitution contained guarantees of rights that could be invoked against the other – but in any conflict it was the new, un-official constitution, nurtured by elites in all walks of life, that tended to prevail…this was a recipe for strife.” (p.171)
So why not give the message 5 stars?
Because the author painted a bleak picture that is not necessarily true and sometimes exaggerated and he offered no way out except by a repeal of either the old constitution or the new one. He saw no other way. I am not sure I want to live in a pre-CRA-64 society where a hotel owner is free to deny service to a tired traveler “for any reason or no reason whatsoever” and call that “simple justice.”(p. 18) But I also don’t want cherished traditions and norms trampled upon in the name of the shifting sand of “diversity.”
The book said elections are not a remedy either because the CRA-64 has marched along unabated through both Democratic and Republican administrations leaving winners and losers in its wake. I disagree. Elections have consequences, to borrow a popular saying. Elections matter a lot. The Trump administration just confirmed 187 federal judges, including 2 Supreme Court justices, because he is a Republican backed by a Republican-majority Senate. Without conservative victory at the ballot box, that won’t be possible. The way to fight the worst impulses of the CRA-64 is to have textualists on the bench. Elections can help achieve that. That, to me, is how we can keep the good of CRA-64 while reining in the bad. I would have loved for the author to point out cases where “liberal activists” lost in court because of the makeup of the bench. It would have been a good counterbalance and a call to action for all.
REVIEW OF THE BOOK AS A WORK OF ART (Rating 0 Stars)
This is a poorly edited book. I’m no editor but I know a shoddy work when I see one and trust me when I say this work is sub-par. The fatal flaw of this book is that it was published in January 2020; yet you could tell that it was written in the final months of 2016. You would be forgiven if you thought this book was published in January 2017 because there was no mention of Donald Trump, no mention of anything that happened in America in 2017, 2018 and 2019. For a book that wants to educate us on “America Since the Sixties,” omitting the last three years prior to publication in the narrative is unforgivable. I wonder how who thought that was a brilliant idea.
There are other defects: Section 4 on War feels contrived and unnecessary. The book, for whatever reason, feels like it needs to dedicate an entire section to the Vietnam War. It tries to draw parallels with the civil right laws but fails to do so convincingly. There are many a paragraph where I kept asking myself “why is this material included?” A page or two on the War, tucked away in another section was all that was needed. 27 pages was a bit too much.
One more: The author dropped a sentence without expanding further on it. In page 232, we read: “Now it became clear that the members of any group that felt itself despised and degraded could defend its interests this way. Even whites.” If I were editing this book, I would have pushed the author to show how whites have taken (or can take) advantage of the CRA-64. After all, two can play the game.
HOW TO MAKE THIS GOOD BOOK GREAT
Average of 4 and 0 is 2. This is why this book, as written, is worth not more than 2 stars. The following are ways future editions can be made better.
1. Be current!! You cannot write a book on “America since the Sixties” and leave out three whole years prior to the book’s publication!
2. Since the election of 2016 was such a seismic shift in the way people saw the country and the ignored forces at work, a great book would have shed more light on why the result was inevitable. This is especially so because, for two years, Republicans controlled everything: the White House, the two houses of Congress and the Supreme Court leaned conservative. The book wants us to feel that conservatism is dying because “there is less to conserve” each day due to the CRA-64, therefore the book has the duty to put America in 2017 and 2018 in perspective for its readers.
3. Offer hope. Let’s be real. The CRA-64 cannot be repealed without another Civil War. Nobody wants that. So the question should NOT be cast in winner/loser, victim/perpetrator, black/white, dichotomies. Since the audience of the book, I think, is straight white males or conservatives in general, the book should offer ways they cannot just survive but thrive in this de facto constitution. They can litigate. They can vote. They can win. A great book tells people not just why and how we got here, but what they can do to get there.